Do European intellectuals exist?

Article published on Jan. 8, 2003
community published
Article published on Jan. 8, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

How often do you hear the insult, “he’s such an intellectual” whispered behind people’s backs?Anyone capable of viewing the world as a game played on the chessboard of their minds must be approached with trepidation by the insecure majority of the public.

The x-generation is obsessed with its need for affirmation. Sartre embodies this desire in his play, Huis Clos. Estelle, trapped in hell with only two other people for company, is forced to rely on her companions for appraisal. The people around her become mirrors, reflecting her radiance, or ultimately in Sartre’s sardonic irony, her opacity. The temptress, Inés, plays on Estelle’s vanity, trying to win over her trust with such words as “aucun miroir ne sera plus fidèle” (there is no mirror that will be more faithful). Much like Inés, European intellectuals are viewed as tempters, luring people into a false sense of assurance. The Latin American intellectual, Jorge Luis Borges, eloquently writes in La biblioteca de babel, found in his short stories El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,:

“La certidumbre de que todo está escrito nos anula o nos afantasma”. (The certainty that everything is written eradicates us or makes us more self-obsessed)

The intellectual’s aim appears to be to put in writing those areas of our lives that Europeans wish to hide away from. Yet Borges’s captivating conclusion is that it is the reader who truly determines intellectualism.

Each writer is held at the mercy of the person who interprets his or her writing. A play is only as good as the response of its audience. A book is only as soul- searching as the reader lets it be. For this reason, Borges, in that same short story, la biblioteca de babel, claims that “los libros nada significan en sí” (books don’t mean anything in isolation). There is an extra dimension to literature which is what makes it so enthralling. In between the lines on the page lies the interpretation of the reader. It is here that the thoughts of the writer come to life. They incarnate themselves in the reader. In other words, Intellectualism is validated by the reader.

Vargas Llosa, the prolific Peruvian writer, would place another dimension on this act of incarnation. He would most probably wish to clarify the intellect of the reader. Vargas Llosa’s intellectualism takes its origins from the Darwinism movement, most commonly referred to by the phrase “survival of the fittest”. The character, El Esclavo in La cuidad y los perros is destroyed by humans of a greater physical resilience than himself, represented by the character El Jaguar, who much like his animalistic name, is the predator of the Military academy where the boys reside. El Jaguar is the lead member of the gang- the one with the ability to make others feel insignificant. He commands respect and his fellows classmates live in fear of him. El Jaguar is one of the few who survive to the Epilogue.

What you may ask does this have to do with intellectuals, and European intellectuals at that?

Let me propose that Vargas Llosa intends to hit on something common to far more than simply the military students in Lima. Does he not wish to project this concept of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” onto literature as a whole and, furthermore, onto modern day “Intellectualism”? People capable of looking beyond their immediate surroundings are always going to be one step ahead. It is exactly these outwardly looking people that the new Europe of today needs. The millennium has ushered in an era of deeply ingrained unrest, shrouded by surface unity. Do we presume that with a single currency, harmonization of European states will become an inevitable reality?

The wise man will take a step in a cautious direction. He will watch his back for predators lurking behind him, waiting to pounce at the slightest sign of insecurity. Intellectuals in the media today must ere on the side of caution as well. Political correctness seems to be a modern catch phrase signifying lines that must not be crossed. It is, therefore, essential to now approach literature in a traditionally intellectual fashion. We cannot afford to disassociate our own thought processes from the text in front of us.

An ever changing, volatile political climate is forcing the public to arrive at its own conclusions if they are to survive beyond a life made up of alien philosophies and the beliefs of another individual. We are now called upon to decide for ourselves what the ultimate truths are.

Let us return to Sartre. He was a philosopher who firmly believed in each person’s individual need to “act”. Sartre was adamant that each individual had to decide how to behave, and could not place this burden on anyone else’s shoulders without committing a great philosophical “sin”. In his autobiography, Les mots he wrote:

“J’ai commencé ma vie comme je la finirai sans doute: au milieu des livres”.

(I started my life as I will undoubtedly finish it: amongst books)

If a man as convinced by the importance of individual responses could find such inspiration in literature, he must have seen literature as a means of “acting”.

Political Intellectuals

Savater, the Basque philosopher, spokesman for the Basta Ya movement, shares Sartre’s views on the necessity of responding to situations. In an interview he claimed:

“Nobody’s required to be interested in philosophy, but I think you should be interested in your own country. I’ve got no desire to draw attention to myself. I just want to use the audience I can attract to promote something that seems vital to me–defending the rule of law and fighting totalitarianism in my country.”

(Quotation can be found at:

Quoting from the same interview, Savater’s view of the reason behind the Basque separatist movement is that “there isn’t one (reason)–there’s no objective, historical or economic basis for one”.

Savater recognizes the human need to have a firm identity. For him, Nationalism is fast becoming the most common reason for conflict. However, instead of confronting like with like, Savater has decided to fight “weapons with words” (Savater). In doing so, he has escalated the power of Intellectualism and people have recognized the refreshingly pacifistic nature of this counterattack and hailed Savater as the new Sartre. His tactics are in line with those of Sartre in that he vehemently believes in the power of words to transform a bleak situation.

Intellectualism has therefore a new role in the 21st century. It has become an enabler rather than a creator. It has enabled people to think for themselves rather than take everything the philosopher says as read. Modern Intellectualism cannot, therefore, be pigeon-holed as arrogance or some form of brainwashing. Nor can it be entirely represented by intellectuals such as Lyotard who fight for a community free from communication and who preach a critical attitude to modern science. In the European Community, there people such as Savater and Vargas Llosa, who wish to excite the intellect of their readers rather than dictate an intellectual line or demand a certain response do exist.


Returning directly to our question for discussion: Do European Intellectuals exist? Of course they do. In every society there will be people who claim superiority over others and classify themselves as intellectuals. However, a more relevant question may be: Is Europe a society of intellectually minded citizens? If a strong and united Europe is to be unearthed, then each member of the European Community must play his or her part. We can no longer rely on influential, so called Intellectuals to formulate our opinions. Even these ‘super humans’ are not infallible. It is our right and our duty to decide our own points of view and arrive at our own conclusions. Therein perhaps lies true European Intellectualism.

Further reading:

A useful article for more information on Patriotism and Globalism can be found at:

* Italics: my translation *